FXX is showing every one of the 550+ episodes of The Simpsons that have appeared on the Fox Network since 1989. In a year where most of what we see on TV is too insanely true to be funny – even though it really really is – the unrelenting sanity of the series is, to put it in religious terms, a blessing.
But we are not going to discuss that Homer Simpson. Instead we’ll consider the original Homer Simpson, one of Nathanael West’s all too human characters in The Day of the Locust, a title that refers to Chapter 10 of the Old Testament’s Book of Exodus.
Homer is – temporarily at least – a financially independent man who has no poise or any quality that would attract another human being to him, except perhaps a certain vulnerability that invites others to exploit his financial independence. He is a man without hope.
And hope, to Nathanael West (Nathan Weinstein), was never Dickinson’s “thing with feathers that perches in the soul.” It was always the vulture circling overhead. If you had it, the scavenging bird would land on you and tear you apart. If you didn’t have it, the scavenging bird would land on you and tear you apart.
Considered one of the hundred best books of the 20th Century, West’s brilliant novel was published at the end of the 1930s, a decade in which every Jew in Christendom had to be aware of Hitler’s pogrom of “undesirables.” American films during this period were largely feel-good flicks designed to lift spirits during the economic depression: Broadway understudies got their big break when the star caught a cold; inside the Dustbowl’s black and white tornado-devastation there was a colorful place where we could find courage, intelligence, and compassion; songs and dances were splints for whatever was broken in the American psyche. And if folks still weren’t convinced that everything would get better, they were reminded that they could be ever so much worse. Dr. Frankenstein, Dracula, and a few cursed Mummies showed them that.
But if you were Nathanael West, you kept one eye on Europe and you were not so easily satisfied with cinematic palliatives. Behind the political rhetoric of newspaper headlines and the sham of movie posters, the World of Hollywood and the World of the Third Reich came together in a doomsday vision that must have suggested the incomprehensible first dozen chapters of the Book of Exodus.
The day that the locusts come is the day that suffering people lose what little they have left.
Egypt in the days in which the account is supposed to have occurred (1446 BCE) must have seemed as fabulous as Voltaire’s El Dorado. But Egypt was indisputably real, and even to the far off, its art, literature, science, architecture, and military power had to excite the imagination – much as Mars excited ours when Lowell saw man-made canals on it.
n the 8th Century BCE when the Book of Exodus is said to have been composed, this fantastic civilization easily lent itself as a literary device. Besides an estimated four to six million Egyptians who lived along the length of the Nile, Exodus states that there were 600,000 Israelite men… “not counting women and children” (an estimated two million people) who desired to leave Egypt and who apparently lived near the Pharaoh – the great warrior king Thutmosis III and his royal residence in Thebes. Although there is no lack of Hebrew names and genealogy, neither the Pharaoh nor the city is named in the Biblical account. No matter how we try to find reasons that explain the events in the story, nothing makes sense. The first dozen or so chapters of Exodus could not have been created as an historical record.
To someone who is not bound by loyalty to a verbatim account of his own religion’s scriptures, the opening chapters resemble a “social cohesion” pep-talk, an antidote to the poison of self-doubt, and the reassurance of rightful claims.
The document is without pity for the victims who most closely resemble Homer Simpson: the people of Egypt who are made to suffer in the cat-and-mouse game that God plays to show the Egyptians how powerful he is and to build confidence in his not always appreciative followers.
According to this inventive account, 430 years after Hebrews first settled in Egypt their number had so increased that by 1446 BC, Pharaoh regards them as a Fifth Column and fears that if they joined their power to that of an enemy’s, they could defeat Egypt. To limit their growth, he conscripts them to work in labor gangs; but their population continues to increase. Pharaoh then decrees that Hebrew males should be killed at birth.
One Hebrew mother puts her infant son in a reed basket and sets him at the Nile’s edge, leaving her daughter to watch over the basket. Pharaoh’s daughter comes to bathe, discovers the Hebrew baby; and, when the infant’s sister steps forward to suggest that a Hebrew mother could be summoned to nurse the child, she accepts the suggestion. The infant is fortuitously returned to its natural mother. Later, when the child is weaned, he is brought to Pharaoh’s daughter who adopts him as her son and names him Moses.
Moses, who is aware of his Hebrew origin; visits his religious brethren and one day witnesses an Egyptian beating one of them. He waits and when he thinks that no one is looking, he kills the Egyptian and hastily buries his body. The next day he returns to find two Israelites fighting. When he asks why they are turning on each other, the man who was winning the fight gives him the “Who made you boss?” speech and shouts, “What do you want to do? Kill me the way you killed that Egyptian?” Moses is effectively ratted-out by a fellow Hebrew and word of his murderous act gets back to Pharaoh who orders that Moses be captured and executed for the crime. Moses flees to the desert.
In Midian, after helping a group of young women to get water from a well, he goes to their home and continues to live, marry, and have children with the Midians, who later will become the Druze, a monotheistic religion now somewhat associated with Shia Islam.
Years later, while shepherding the family’s livestock, Moses sees a burning bush that, curiously, is not consumed by the fire. God speaks to him saying that he is aware of the Israelites’ enslavement and commands Moses to go to Pharaoh and tell him “to let my people go.” He has promised that the Israelites’ new home will be Canaan, a land of milk and honey, which is presently occupied by settlers from various nations and ruled by Egypt.
God also intends that the Israeliites “borrow” so much gold and silver jewelry from their Egyptian neighbors that when they suddenly leave Egypt with the loot, the country will be financially “despoiled.”
After several preliminary actions, God tells Moses that he will show the Egyptians his true power. The scheme requires the following: Moses will demand that the Israelites be freed; Pharaoh will refuse. Moses will threaten to cause a disaster, Pharaoh will ignore the threat. God will create a catastrophic event, Pharaoh will relent and grant the demand. The catastrophe will end, but then God will manipulate Pharaoh’s mind and force him to renege on his promise. And again, Moses will go through the same scene with the threat of a worse punishment. Request, denial, threat, refusal, catastrophic occurrence; acquiescence upon cession of catastrophe, and forced reneging of promise. (Israeli communities are spared any of the nasty effects of these disasters.)
- The First Plague: Every drop of Water turns into blood. Fish die and putrefy. After a week, Pharaoh promises to let the Israelites go; but then, after the water is restored, God “hardens Pharaoh’s heart” and he reneges on his promise.
- The identical scene is played out with the Second Plague: The Inundation of Frogs.
- The Third Plague: Swarms of Gnats.
- The Fourth Plague: Swarms of Flies.
- The Fifth Plague: Death of all Egyptian Livestock by Disease.
- The Sixth Plague: Boils of Infection on all Egyptians.
- The Seventh Plague: Hail that Destroys half the Crops.
- The Eighth Plague: The Swarm of Locusts that Completes the Destruction of the Crops and every green plant and tree.
- The Egyptians are now forced to endure the superfluous Ninth Plague of Total Darkness and Tenth Plague of the Death of every living creature’s First Offspring. Pharaoh agrees to let the Israelites leave Egypt.
The Egyptian people give or lend their gold and silver to the departing Israelites. No reason is given for this largesse.
The Book, often cited as a divine transfer of title to land now belonging to Israel, includes, in Chapter 15, the famous parting of the Red Sea and, in Chapter 20, the Ten Commandments given to Moses.
The first group of Chapters, while no doubt fascinating and the subject of much scholarly exegesis, does not jibe with Egyptian history or the archeological record. Its value lies in its eloquence and in its startling example of man’s inability to comprehend divine methodologies. We are not meant to understand “Acts of God.” Yes, we may know the factual causes and effects of natural disasters, but not our ill-luck in being subjected to them. Only a religious faith that “God’s will be done” can be truly supportive.
Homer Simpson lacks faith of any kind. He’s a tall man and not exactly unattractive, but he exudes the kind of cringing-dog timidity that repulses people. Worse, Homer is that specific type that we meet so often in Zen: he comes with neither understanding nor experience but has a unrealistic expectation that he can start at the end – not at the beginning. He does not know how to proceed in an orderly way. His fear and ignorance obliterate the niceties of pleasant greetings, of introductions that inspire interactions, of actions that allay fear and enhance confidence.
Homer, a forty year old virginal bachelor, had been employed as a bookkeeper at a hotel in Iowa. His passions were incited by a young woman of questionable morals with whom he had once ridden in an elevator. She, having spent her last dollar on gin, was behind in her rent. The hotel manager sends Homer to her room (#611) to collect the money. She is a pitiable waif… “blue button eyes, pink button nose, and red button mouth,” says West.
She weeps. She has no money. Homer responds by dropping his wallet into her lap and then, when she turns to him in gratitude, he grabs her so forcefully that she recoils. But she well knows that money given without love is given with expectation, and she stretches her body into an unmistakable position, one that sends inexperienced Homer running from the room. She uses the money to pay her bill and then leaves the hotel. Homer searches for her but she has apparently left town. Forlorn, he sits in the rain and develops a cold that becomes pneumonia. By the time he is well enough to return to work, someone has been hired to replace him; and while he is considered for other employment there, his doctor authoritatively tells him he ought to seek the warmth of California.
In Los Angeles, he has enough money to live for several years – providing he is frugal. He rents a two bedroom cottage. Alone and miserable, he fills the tub with water and sits in it and sobs for the loss of the girl in “six eleven.”
An ex-entertainer named Harry Greener comes to the cottage, selling phony silver polish. He immediately regards Homer as the type sucker who will yield to his vaudevillian pitch. His beautiful young daughter, seventeen year old Faye, is waiting outside. When Harry Greener suffers a mild heart attack, she comes into the cottage, and her presence has a bewitching effect on Homer. He makes lunch for her and slips her father some money. Harry makes a suggestive remark about Homer’s extra bedroom. Faye is annoyed by it.
“Well, then, let’s get going,” she snapped.
“There’s plenty of time,” Homer said.
He wanted to add something stronger, but didn’t have the courage. His hands were braver.
When Faye shook good-by, they clutched and refused to let go.
Faye laughed at their warm insistence.
Homer is in love again. Faye is a complicated girl – a mixture of teenaged movie-star dreams, sweet vulnerability, and unpredictable venality. She is beautiful and desirable, and Homer cannot conceal his adoration. Faye finds his attentions laughable. He is a “big dope” that she could never be romantically interested in.
West comments, “It is hard to laugh at the need for beauty and romance, no matter how tasteless, even horrible, the results of that are. But it is easy to sigh. Few things are sadder than the truly monstrous.”
And here again we see the inevitable bad result of flawed beginnings.
“When the days passed and he couldn’t forget Faye, he began to grow frightened. He somehow knew that his only defense was chastity, that it served him, like the shell of a tortoise, as both spine and armor. He couldn’t shed it, even in thought. If he did, he would be destroyed.
He was right. There are men who can lust with parts of themselves. Only their brain or their hearts burn and then not completely. There are others, still more fortunate, who are like the filaments of an incandescent lamp. They burn fiercely, yet nothing is destroyed. But in Homer’s case it would be like dropping a spark into a barn full of hay.“
Advanced practices of Zen follow the Microcosmic Orbit of Daoism or Kundalini Yoga of Hinduism. When someone tries to skip over the beginning and intermediate stages and jumps right to these sexually-charged practices, we invariably find spiritual disaster. Zen is a religion; and however much one’s health or psychological state is improved by religious practice, the devotion to its spiritual principles cannot be ignored or given a cursory glance while the eyes focus on more adventurous techniques.
The Path must begin with the realization that the material world is painful and that the Buddha’s Way leads to delivery from pain. The Word has to be listened to and accepted, and then the meditative techniques can be tried in order to test the veracity of the Word. Success then promotes faith that our religion is not something we do, but something we are. Webecome Zen Buddhists.
Harry Greener dies and Faye works in a brothel to pay for his funeral. When the debt is paid, she leaves such employment because she fears that she might contract a beauty-marring venereal disease. Homer’s money, chastity, and desperate need for attention are a better solution. She moves into that other bedroom in his cottage. The promises and plagues begin.
Homer is happy. The beautiful girl with whom he is infatuated lives in his house. Although Faye desperately wants to be an actress, she has neither talent nor skill and she makes no attempt even to study the discipline. To the naive, such beginning skills are unnecessary. What is required is the appearance of success. In Zen it is the robes and beads; in acting, at least to Faye, it consists in being seen wearing beautiful clothes. She must also live the pampered life of a movie star. Homer does the housework and brings her breakfast in bed – duties which limit his entrance to the bedchamber. Dressing flamboyantly, he takes her to places where she can be seen and, naturally, he buys her the garments that will give credence to the lie of her success.
When questioned about this arrangement, Homer insists that it is a legitimate business contract, and he repeats her promise that when she is successful she will repay every cent he is investing in her career – with interest. Her promises, like Pharaoh’s, are fated to be broken.
Emotionally, Homer has mistaken a common address for the bonds of co-habitation. Faye is young and beautiful and what else can youth and beauty be but pure? He believes that while he might not be the man in her bed, there surely is no other. He thinks that he can sustain the terms of their life together by living each day as he had lived the day before. But –
“As time went on, the relationship between Faye and Homer began to change. She became bored with the life they were leading together, and as her boredom deepened, she began to persecute him. At first she did it unconsciously, later maliciously.
Homer realized that the end was in sight even before she did. All he could do to prevent its coming was to increase his servility and his generosity. He waited on her hand and foot. He bought her a coat of summer ermine and a light blue Buick runabout.“
To please her, Homer opens his home to her friends who turn his garage into a cock-fighting arena, consume his food and drink, and have drunken brawls in his living room. In one such after-the-cockfight-party, Faye is so fixated on a guest who is associated with “the pictures” that Homer and another hopeless admirer of hers go outside and sit on the curb. Homer’s attempts to excuse Faye’s behavior are so irritating and unrealistic that his companion says – as if the news will dispel his deusions – “She’s a whore!”
Stunned and confused by the charge, Homer retreats to his bedroom and sits in the dark, while the guests continue to squabble drunkenly. Eventually the house grows quiet and he falls asleep only to be awakened by the sound of Faye moaning. Believing that her moans are an indication of sickness, he enters her bedroom and discovers her naked in bed with the man who owns the fighting cocks. Faye screams at him, waking another guest who has been sleeping in the living room. While the man in the bed goes into the hall to fight with the man who had been summoned by Faye’s screams, Homer sits in Faye’s bedroom, “guarding” her. As soon as the fight is over, she tells Homer to get out, and he again retreats to his bedroom. In the morning, Faye and all her possessions are gone. Homer cannot process the sight of her empty closet, drawers, and dress boxes. He sinks into near catatonia, becoming zombie-like, only half alive, like a dormant volcano. He has been plagued to extremity.
The rage that he has suppressed for decades churns inside him, ready to erupt; but his years of disciplined control crust over it. He packs his suitcase and decides to return to the Iowa town from which he had come. Stiff and blank he heads for the railroad station and is inadvertently swept into a destructive locust-like swarm of movie-star aficionados that is determined to watch a film-premier’s red carpet parade. Extruded from the swarm, he sits on a step where he is seen by a bratty child performer who has pestered him at the cottage. The child tries to play tricks on him, but Homer is incapable of interaction. The more numb he remains the more frenetic the boy becomes. Finally the nasty kid is so frustrated by his inability to torment Homer that he picks up a rock and throws it, striking Homer’s forehead. The blow cracks the caldera’s crust and Homer explodes in a violent attack upon the boy. He chases him, catches him, flings him to the ground and begins to jump up and down on the child’s body, presumably killing him. The Day of the Locust for Homer Simpson will end with his being bereft of everything.
Nathanael West, who died in 1940 at the age of 37, was apparently rushing to attend the funeral of F. Scott Fitzgerald when he ran a red light and crashed into another car. The loss in two days’ time to American literature was enormous.
West describes the human condition, he doesn’t treat it. He shows us X-rays and leaves it to us to interpret them. We are like the Egyptian people in the Exodus: disasters happen and that is all we know. Hitler’s fanatical army can swarm over Europe and millions will die. A similar insanity drives the mindless mob that wants to glimpse movie stars.
What could Homer have done? Ruling out more serious conditions that require neurological or psychiatric assistance, he could have tried to rid himself of fear. If he had been subjected to bullying, he could have studied Karate or Jiu Jitsu to build confidence. Had he been religious, his pastor might have helped him to offset his fight-or-flight hormones with their congenial opposites, particularly serotonin, the output of which is increased by employing breathing techniques: anything from singing in a choir, chanting prayers, to doing the Healing Breath. Yoga, Tai Ji Quan, or long on-foot pilgrimages all accomplish the same gentle stretching of muscles that produces serotonin. Cortisol, a stress hormone, can be countered with herbs readily available: ashwagandha; banaba leaf; ginseng; holy basil; and relora, among others – as well as a proper caffeine-free diet – one that includes a vitamin and mineral supplement. Religion, aside from the fellowship of weekly meetings and the always available comfort of prayer, scriptural reassurance, and meditation, also offers more direct social interactions: scouts; sports; study groups. There are positive actions a person can take to overcome timidity and awkwardness. We are not told why Homer never sought to alleviate his destructive shyness; we can only assume that he never tried to correct the problem that plagued his life and led to his downfall.
The Day of the Locust is not an exposé of Hollywood’s meretricious values. It is an indictment of every society, of every town on the planet. Too easily, we corrupt the Caesarian admonition – that something must not only be virtuous, it must also appear to be virtuous. We are content with just the appearances and assume that if we look like an enlightened soul, we miraculously radiate goodness. Everything, then, that is evil resides outside us. In truth, it is the enemy within who harms us and, in doing so, makes us vulnerable to external culprits. Fighting the enemy within is no simple skirmish. To quote the Buddha, “One man may conquer ten thousand men in battle, and anther man may conquer only himself. But this man is the greater victor.”